(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Recording review - Shonen Knife, Overdrive (2014)

A beautiful balance of thrashy naïveté

Gabba gabba, we accept you/ We accept you, one of us!” On “Pinhead”, the Ramones explicitly summed up the promise of the DIY punk ethos. Anyone could join in from whatever part of the fringe they lived on. That message found an unlikely reception in Osaka, Japan, where two sisters and their friend were inspired to start their own band in 1981. Although the lineup has changed over the years, Shonen Knife remains true to their initial love of bands like the Ramones. Part of their magic is that they embody both rock rawness and Japanese kawaii (cuteness) culture. Their thrashy guitars and simple song structures firmly embrace punk, but the trio’s joie de vivre creates a cognitive dissonance. The crunchy catharsis of distorted amps is tied to cheerfully trivial lyrics in a way that sounds quite naïve to a Western audience. Where other bands might cast this contrast as irony or a mask of innocence over a seething internal chaos, Shonen Knife uses the noise like a trebuchet to launch their innate optimism to soaring heights. They walk this tightrope between two extremes with such a natural flair that it’s impossible to dismiss them as a lightweight girl band or as mindless rockers. They’ve been around long enough that they qualify as old-school punks and they’ve developed a cult following that included Sonic Youth and the late Kurt Cobain.

Their latest offering, Overdrive, reliably delivers their standard mix of punk and pop, but expands that with a classic rock/early heavy metal palette. The opening tune, “Bad Luck Song”, crosses a garage rocking Thin Lizzy cover band with the Ramones, in the best possible sense of that combination. It’s filled with riffs and hooks that are reminiscent of “The Boys Are Back In Town”, but the chorus vocals capture Joey Ramone’s self-conscious simplicity, fitting the message of the song, “The bad luck song might be my good luck song/ This is the best way of thinking.” The twin guitar attack on the solo nails Thin Lizzy’s harmonized lines. It’s a solid start for the album. On the next tune, “Black Crow”, Shonen Knife shifts from classic rock to moody, Black Sabbath-inspired heavy metal. This is one of the two darker tunes on the album, with Naoko Yamano actually summoning a touch of resentment at the crow that has interrupted her sleep, “Don’t wake me up in the night/ I want to stay in my dreams/ Don’t wake me up in the night/ Go back to the mountain.” The lyrics have a childlike directness that is refreshing, perhaps because they seem to deny any metaphorical interpretation. The other break in the band’s relentless cheer comes with “Robots from Hell”, a grinding, drum heavy slog which also leans towards heavy metal. While most of the song just modulates between a couple of chords, they do toss in some tight chord riffs that any basement metal band would be proud to play.

The weighty hard rock on Overdrive meshes well with the band’s power chord punk and it’s fun to identify their influences, from the AC/DC grind of “Ramen Rock” to the Deep Purple sludge intro for “Green Tea”. But even as Shonen Knife expands their sound, they haven’t sacrificed a bit of their fundamental pop sensibility or their paradoxical Zen koan nature. Their kawaii persona is inherently artifice and yet the clarity of their words and grounded playing tap into a guileless sincerity. That enigmatic combination is still intriguing after all of these years. There are a handful of somewhat damaged artists like Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson, who could translate their skewed internal mindsets into great art. Shonen Knife are hardly impaired in any way and they’re not of that same stature, but their unique perspective is similarly compelling.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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